Andrew Milburn, When the Tempest Gathers (Pen & Sword, 2020)
It is a sobering thought that the War on Terror has continued long enough for combatants to write their memoirs. Yet, how many of us really know anything about this strand of our history beyond basic and sporadic news items? Andrew Milburn’s When the Tempest Gathers is therefore quite the eye-opener.
After a prologue, recounting an attack in Mosul in 2016, Milburn begins his story with his joining the Marines just in time to miss the First Gulf War in 1991. He made it to Somalia, though, as a lieutenant in command of a mortar team, patrolling the notorious Green Line in Mogadishu where he saw his first combat against local insurgents. A while after he returned, Milburn took command of a Company then became a Battalion Operations Officer. He was in the Far East when 9/11 happened but took no part in the war in Afghanistan. As a Major, and part of the Coalition and Special Warfare Center (CSW), Milburn shipped out for the invasion of Iraq, leaving his role temporarily. Among his experiences, he assisted in friendly fire incidents and helped plan attacks on the enemy. The subsequent occupation was already turning sour when he returned to the US and the CSW.
Milburn was soon back in Iraq, at Fallujah on the eve of the US assault on that town. Milburn narrates his role in the bloody affair, fighting the Muj, in some detail. From there, he served in Anbar Province, where IEDs ruled, and onto Mosul. Milburn took command of the 3rd Battalion advisor team and was charged with securing the elections in his area. From there, Milburn was sent to Afghanistan as an advisor then back to Iraq. He left there in June 2005 and took up a planning position for a potential future war in Korea. He was promoted to battalion commander in 2007 and returned to Iraq and the town of Karma, and the beginnings of ISIS. His battalion pacified the town after a struggle, then Milburn returned to the US. His next hazardous assignment was helping arrange evacuations from Libya in 2011. The next year, Milburn took command of a Marine Special Operations Regiment. After a personal tragedy, Milburn was back in Iraq, fighting ISIS alongside the Peshmerga with considerable success. He concludes his memoir with his retirement and some sobering thoughts on US policy and the squandering of American lives in seemingly pointless wars.
When the Tempest Gathers is a remarkable memoir on many levels. It is full of action and incident. Milburn has you on the edge of your seat as you follow him around the chaotic modern battlefield, fighting enemies you rarely see but when you do it is often up close and personal. Milburn’s account is full of tactical insight, as you might expect, but he is also an expert through experience on the psychology of combat. In addition, Milburn weighs up America’s allies and enemies with nuance rather than discrimination, which is refreshing, and he is scathing on US policy in Iraq. Finally, Milburn brings out the personal and emotional side of being a soldier, and you will see why he refers to his ‘gallery of ghosts’ that still haunt him. As a writer, Milburn is a well-read man, able to set his experiences into a literary context as well as the pragmatic; he is a throwback in some ways to the warrior poets of the Twentieth Century’s conflicts. This memoir will stand the test of time and be read and understood by soldiers in the future. It is a pity that poor editing let him down on a few jarring occasions, but that does not detract from the excellence of Milburn’s memoir. 10/10